When I was six years old my mother told people I could swim like a pretty fish.
Whether or not I believed her, I wanted to make her right, so I'd while away the afternoons, skimming the floor of the pool like an eel, heroically holding my breath and watching the bubbles rise like a certified diver. Now and then, I'd pop to the surface to see if my mom had been watching. She would nod and wave and say something to a friend sunning nearby. And I knew she had, once again, just called me a fish.
My outer limit was the wide blue stripe tiled across the pool to delineate the shallow end, where I knew I could stand and get air, from the dreaded deep end, where the water became murky, a place of seaweed and sharks and sunken pirate ships, where a child could get caught in the kelp and die before ever making it back to the light streaming through the surface waters of the community swimming pool.
As long as I didn't go out of bounds, I was the queen of the aquarium, sometimes the Little Mermaid and sometimes Esther Williams but always the pride of my mother, who sat in her Anne Cole bathing suit and Jackie Kennedy sunglasses with a can of Fresca® in her hand, a conversation on her lips, and an eye on my life.
My mother saved her little sister from drowning when my mom was 8. She could water ski without getting her hair wet, swim laps without taking a breath. And she earned her lifeguard certification by retrieving a 280-pound woman from the bottom of a pool.
Determined her daughters would also swim, she bought us sparkly suits and signed us up for summer lessons. So we climbed into the water and learned how to blow bubbles, navigate a kick board, and paddle like a pup.
But at summer's end, the coach told us we had to prove ourselves by swimming, ankles bound, to the end of the racing pool and back without a kick board. I stood at the edge of disaster, toes curled over the curb, and studied the deep and endless sea, while my twin sister twisted a deflated inner tube around her ankles and slid into the water.
As she paddled her way out to sea, she looked as though she was drowning. As I turned to run as far and as fast as I could from her demise and mine, my mother caught my arm. I studied her shaded eyes, bit her hand, and fled.
She didn't chase me. From behind the mulberry where I hid, I watched her cheer on my sister, then lift her from the pool and towel-dry her hair as if she had just completed her bath. Then she wandered over to my tree, sat down on the other side of the narrow trunk and said, "It's OK to be scared. Everybody gets scared sometimes. It's how you handle it that counts. How about we tell the coach that today you're going to swim the width of the pool with your ankles free and we'll see how it goes from there?"
Today I swim four days a week, from one end of the pool to the other. And my mother still calls me a fish